There seems to be a raging debate in the mobile marketing arena about which will be the winning platform for mobile advertisers – the mobile application or the mobile web browser. I’d actually say it isn’t a fair fight.
Mobile applications should optimally use a process of integrating with the hardware and/or user interface of the software operating system, generally through application programming interfaces and a transaction engine or download manager, like the Apps Store or the Android Market. The browser, on the other hand, has limited direct access to hardware components (e.g, GPS, camera), yet depends on the software operating system for enablers like video playback. Browsers appear as a standalone application for retrieving and viewing standard web content on smartphones. The browser often requires a zoom-in to position content for reading, and different sites may or may not optimize page layout for a mobile experience, let alone for a particular device, screen size or aspect ratio. Apps tend to have a fixed layout purely intended for mobile display and can call a browser to support visualizing data outside the application UI.
The web provides a familiar metaphor to consumers for discovering content. App stores often have a merchandising architecture intended to promote new apps, top apps, of favorite apps. After that, a consumer must understand the categorization and information hierarchy to directly discover an app, so in either case search becomes the valuable solution. It is possible from a web page to promote a downloadable app, and on Android devices there is a setting to enable downloadable apps from outside the device marketplace to have access to the device. In this case, a consumer might have an affinity with a brand, content or web service and see that there is solution to extend that relationship to their mobile device. Added utility – capabilities enabled my the mobility of the user – can be a strong driver for a consumer to choose a mobile app.
For advertisers trying to leverage mobile, the notion that these two distinct user experiences require the same kind of consumer engagement is faulty. The audience who doesn’t yet have an affinity for a brand won’t necessarily be motivated to discover an app on the shelf of the mobile device store unless it is highlighted and merchandised in the equivalent of a store “end-cap.” Even though creating the mobile experience could be a tool to convert that consumer as a customer, it will not be enough to simply develop the app and get shelf space.
First, an advertiser, publisher or content developer will need to determine the goal for their mobile experience – acquisition, loyalty, transactions, consumption – and then determine the right technical environment for accomplishing that goal. If browser rendering can degrade an experience, then a mobile application can solve that. If there are hardware or application APIs that need to be leveraged, than an app will be better suited to integrate with them than the browser will. If a mobile application is a desirable course of action, it does not mean that the mobile browser should be forgotten. Consumers may still discover and engage with your brand through your website on their mobile device, and your application should at minimum be promoted, merchandised and supported through web pages, rendered in their device browser.
The initial choice for brands developing a mobile strategy shouldn’t be mobile application or mobile website. Mobile strategy must start with the consumer, and the relationship you hope to develop with them to engage with your brand. That likely leads to choosing to leverage both approaches.